On a recent Saturday evening, Chicago chef Daniel Espinoza stood in a Crossroads District art gallery painting yellow stripes of saffron sauce onto bamboo plates.
Espinoza topped the saffron sauce with squid salad and crumbled chorizo to make the first of five courses in his Mexican-inspired meal for Dinner Lab, a rapidly expanding national supper club that recently made its Kansas City debut.
Dinner Lab, which has been featured in The New York Times and The New Yorker, announced in February that it was expanding to Kansas City starting with a $60 five-course meal prepared by Espinoza, who worked at Mexique in Chicago and Ausable Club in upstate New York before accepting a full-time position as Dinner Lab’s chef de cuisine. When the May 8 event sold out, Dinner Lab added a second on May 9.
Kansas City members pay an annual fee of $125 to get invites to Dinner Lab events in 30 cities. Members also pay to attend meals, which usually cost $50 to $80, with drinks and gratuity included. Each member can bring up to three guests to an event.
Dinner Lab shakes up the traditional restaurant experience by giving young, up-and-coming chefs full control over their menus and staging the pop-ups in unconventional locations — warehouses, parking garages, art galleries — that are announced 24 hours before the event. Diners are also encouraged to provide honest feedback on every course.
Kansas City’s first Dinner Lab event transformed Weinberger Fine Art, 114 Southwest Blvd., into a full-service restaurant complete with a bar, servers, communal dining tables and a makeshift kitchen. Espinoza and a small team of chefs prepared most of the food at a commercial kitchen in Independence to comply with health department regulations. During dinner they plated the ingredients assembly line-style on a long table at the back of the gallery.
Upon arrival, diners were asked to read a waiver stating they were “fully aware of ... the risk of eating food prepared outside of a traditional restaurant setting.” After signing, most made a beeline for the bar, which served wine and bottles of Boulevard beer, and perused photos by New York artist Andy Gershon. A playlist that featuring the Cure to The Notorious B.I.G bounced off the gallery’s white walls and polished concrete floors.
After the diners settled into seats at tables covered with white paper, Espinoza introduced himself and the meal, which he said was influenced by his Mexican grandmother and his passion for French cuisine.
“It’s pretty damn awesome,” said the tattooed chef, who wore a backwards cap. “I’m feeding people things I actually want to eat.”
After everyone finished their chorizo-topped squid salads, servers brought out the second course — tostadas topped with guacamole, carnitas, jicama and queso fresco. Espinoza encouraged diners to eat the tostada with their hands.
“Get down and dirty,” he said, “or I’m going to assume you eat chicken wings with a knife and fork.”
After the tostada came Milanesa de Pollo, a deck of cards-sized portion of crispy fried chicken on a mound of cilantro grits. Spicy maple sauce added a sweet, syrupy flavor to the dish, which tasted like Southern comfort food.
The fifth course — mahi mahi with mole verde and pico de gallo — came with a mezcal cocktail sweetened with roasted pineapple. The tangy and smoky drink was the perfect match for the beachy dish. The meal ended with a jam jar of rhubarb and white chocolate flan sprinkled with spicy peanut crumbles.
“I don’t like sweets,” Espinoza said when he came by my table during dessert, “so I always add something savory, like the spicy peanuts.”
By the end of the meal, the art gallery was full of about 120 strangers chatting like old friends as they scraped every bit of flan out of the glass jars.
Member Amanda McLeish shared photos of the meal on Instagram with the caption “So awesome! Food coma!”
McLeish, an events consultant who lives in Fairway, says she bought a Dinner Lab membership because she loves discovering new chefs, restaurants and event spaces. She brought a food-loving friend with her to Kansas City’s first event.
“We thought it was great,” said McLeish, who had never been to a pop-up restaurant before. To fully enjoy the experience, she added, “you have to be open to trying new foods.”
Pop-up restaurants aren’t uncommon in Kansas City. A few years ago, Kansas City chef Alex Pope opened a series of pop-up restaurants called Vagabond. Since then, a couple of other temporary restaurants have emerged, including Concept One, Überdine and The Waffle Iron, a pop-up waffle stand in Lawrence.
Joe Shirley, the chef behind Überdine, says he’s not threatened by Dinner Lab’s arrival in Kansas City because his concept is different. Shirley typically plans four or five Überdine events a year. The 14- or 15-course dinners cost around $120 per person and always sell out.
“I don’t see (Dinner Lab) as competition,” Shirley says. “Kansas City has such a great food scene — the more, the merrier.”
Kansas City has about 250 Dinner Lab members. At the next event, scheduled for June 5, Kansas City chefs Mickey Priolo and Rick Mullins will team up for a five-course menu of progressive American food. The menu features fennel cream soup, braised pork belly and white chocolate panna cotta. Tickets cost $60 for the first two. Members can invite two additional guests for $70 each.
On a visit to Kansas City earlier this year, Dinner Lab CEO Brian Bordainick said the frequency of Kansas City events would increase along with the number of members. About half of the local pop-ups will spotlight rising local chefs, he added, and the other half will bring in chefs from other cities.
Over chilaquiles at Port Fonda, Bordainick said Dinner Lab’s goal is to give Kansas City a taste of what’s happening on the national restaurant scene, “and to bring the best of what’s happening here to the rest of the country.”